Liberals and Libertarians Might Agree on Tolerating Government After All

When I and others have discussed the idea of a fusion of libertarian and liberal ideas there have been supporters and detractors both among libertarians and liberals. This is largely because of the variety of beliefs in both groups. An article by Tyler Cohen at Cato Unbound provides further evidence that there can be areas of common ground between libertarians and liberals.

Liberals can range from more classical liberals whose primary interest is in civil liberties and social issues while supporting a free market system to supporters of a big government welfare state. The former group shows an overlap with libertarian beliefs, while the latter has far less common ground with libertarians. Libertarians range from those hostile to any form of government whatsoever, to those who accept varying degrees of government. There is often a fine line between the later form of libertarian and the first group of liberals I mentioned. (This could be confused further by a number of right wingers who have taken the libertarian label while rejecting basic libertarian principles in supporting Bush and the Iraq war. To consider these faux-libertarians to be libertarian strips the libertarian name of any real meaning, which has been a complaint of many libertarians.)

Tyler Cohen shows the degree to which some libertarians and liberals do overlap when he argues that the paradox of the success of the libertarian movement has been bigger government:

Those developments have brought us much greater wealth and much greater liberty, at least in the positive sense of greater life opportunities. They’ve also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.

I am not so worried about this paradox of libertarianism. Overall libertarians should embrace these developments. We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.

The old formulas were “big government is bad” and “liberty is good,” but these are not exactly equal in their implications. The second motto — “liberty is good” — is the more important. And the older story of “big government crushes liberty” is being superseded by “advances in liberty bring bigger government.”

Often the issue comes down to whether increasing liberty or eliminating government is the primary goal. Some libertarians see any government as evil, and act as if there is no moral distinction between government inspecting meat and government restricting free speech. Hardcore libertarians also have a hard sell because many people who might agree on civil liberties and on social issues do not see going without health insurance, or giving up their social security benefits, as becoming more free.

I suspect that many libertarians are going to object to Cohen’s article. While “big government conservativism” really was no surprise as Republican support for liberty and small government has generally been transparent rhetoric divorced from their actual policies, “big government libertarianism” might be seen as a violation of core beliefs. The specific examples Cohen gave of government action are fairly benign, but his argument might also be used to justify the pro-war and pro-Republican attitudes on the right. Ultimately labels have grave limitations, lumping people together who might have very different beliefs and dividing people who are actually close in their beliefs. The overlaps between some libertarians and liberals, as well as the divisions within these groups, provides an excellent example of these limitations in using labels.

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  1. 1
    Anthony Gregory says:

    Cowen is more tolerant of government than other libertarians not just for “liberal” purposes but for “conservative” ones, too. Indeed, he was one of those who supported the Iraq war.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    That’s a shame. I was curious about more of his beliefs and had planned on reading more of his blog later on.

    The arguments in this article could be taken to justify alliances between libertarians and either liberals or conservatives. It wasn’t clear where he stands from his examples. For example, he wrote on global warming:

    We need to recognize that some of the current threats to liberty are outside of the old categories. I worry about pandemics and natural disasters, as well as global warming and climate change more generally (it doesn’t have to be carbon-induced to be a problem). These developments are big threats to the liberty of many people in the world, although not necessarily Americans. The best answers to these problems don’t always lie on the old liberty/power spectrum in a simple way. Defining property rights in clean air, or in a regular climate, isn’t that easy and it probably cannot be done without significant state intervention of some kind or another.

    Yes, I know some of you are climate skeptics. But if the chance of mainstream science being right is only 20% (and assuredly it is much higher than that), we still have, in expected value terms, a massive tort. We don’t let people play involuntary Russian roulette on others with a probability of 17% (one bullet, six chambers), so we do need to worry about man-made global warming.

    This sounds like someone with views leaning towards liberal views who is speaking to people influenced by conservatives. Of course climate change is now the consensus of scientific thought and hopefully not all conservatives buy into the attacks on the science.

    If I was sure of his beliefs I might have written this a little different, stressing the point that if some libertarians could support (or at least tolerate) government in some areas this leaves room for other libertarians to find common ground with some liberals.

  3. 3
    Anthony Gregory says:

    Well I’m a global warming agnostic, but as a radical libertarian I oppose all big-government solutions to such problems, real or imaginary. I also oppose the war on terror and against “Islamo-fascism.” I think it’s perfectly fine for libertarians to work with the left or right when we agree on something. If the left is being more libertarian on war, or drug prohibition, or whatever, it makes sense for libertarians and the left to cooperate.

    But I don’t see the benefit of libertarians changing their principles and becoming less libertarian so as to work together on non-libertarian goals, since it kind of, um, defeats the point of being a libertarian. One would think.

  4. 4
    peter jackson says:

    The big gulf between left-liberals and libertarians is economics. No offense intended, but if the left is ever to become politically relevant again they will need to revisit all of their policies in light of modern economic understanding. Until they do, the left will simply won’t share enough premises of cause and effect to form a basis for any agreement with anyone other than themselves.


  5. 5
    Ron Chusid says:


    There is no need for libertarians to change their principles to work with liberals in areas of common agreement. I don’t think many libertarians really expect to have a libertarian society in the near future (if ever) but we could have a far more libertarian society by pushing for areas of common agreement.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:


    Another problem with labels beyond what I mentioned in the post is that people attribute beliefs to groups based upon labels which might no longer hold as labels are used differently at different times. Liberals are currently the most pragmatic on economic issues, following modern economic theories, while other groups often base economic views based upon their ideology as opposed to what modern economic theory actually shows.

    In the past the conventional wisdom was that libertarians were closer to conservatives in economics. In recent years it has become clearer that Republican economic polices concentrate more on corporate welfare and use of the tax code to redistribute wealth to the ultra-wealthy, even at the expense of the middle and upper middle classes. In contrast the influence of leftist economics has been minimalized among modern liberals.

  7. 7
    Eric Dondero says:

    The bigger problem with Libertarians working with the Left, is just plain infrastructure.

    There’s no viable vehicle for Libertarians to win elections as Democrats, as there is with Libertarians in the GOP.

    In the entire history of the Modern Libertarian Movement since 1969 only one single Libertarian has ever won election as a Democrat – New Hampshire State Rep. Steve Vaillancourt in 1998, and that was a complete fluke. A year later he switched to Republican.

    Compare that with hundreds of libertarians who’ve been elected to Congress, Governorships and State Legislatures as Republicans, like Jeff Flake, Dana Rohrabacher, Tom McClintock, Sarah Palin, Butch Otter, Leon Drolet,

    There’s no reason for Libertarians to work with Liberals if we can’t get our candidates elected as Democrats.

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:

    I wonder how many of the people you list as libertarians are really libertarians as opposed to conservative Republicans who might sometimes be referred to as libertarians.

    Republicans have drifted further from libertarianism in recent years with their support for the war, the Patriot Act, increased government spending, and corporate welfare. Even if libertarians found the party to be of use in the past this may no longer be true in the future.

  9. 9
    Dr House says:

    The man’s argument makes some sense, but there’s a reason I became a libertarian: Government intervention in almost all cases has nasty externalities that outweigh the good that may come from it. That hasn’t changed.

    I agree with working against AGW and air pollution (which is a general property rights violation that can’t really be settled in court), and I agree with the provision of a few public goods and very, very light regulation, but that’s about the extent I think the government should be extended.

    -Dr House

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